Iraq Veterans Sue VA Over Disability Pay, Health Care Services
Two veterans groups on Monday filed suit against the Department of Veterans Affairs in U.S. District Court in San Francisco alleging that VA is responsible for a "systemwide pattern of abusive and illegal administrative practices," the Sacramento Bee reports (Walsh, Sacramento Bee, 7/24).
The class-action lawsuit claims VA failed to deliver the mandatory two years of disability benefits for veterans, failed to address staff problems that led to long wait times for care and provided insufficient care for post-traumatic stress disorder. The lawsuit also claims VA deliberately reclassified PTSD claims as pre-existing disorders in order to avoid paying out benefits (Yen, AP/Houston Chronicle, 7/23).
The lawsuit notes that as many as 38% of soldiers and 50% of National Guard members are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with mental disorders. In addition, the suit claims VA's system for ruling on claims has "largely collapsed" (Sacramento Bee, 7/24). The claims system has a backlog of between 400,000 and 600,000 payments, with delays of up to 177 days to process an initial claim and an average of 657 days to process an appeal (AP/Houston Chronicle, 7/24).
The suit -- filed by Veterans for Common Sense, which has 11,500 members, and 500-member Veterans United for Truth -- seeks an injunction against the continuation of certain VA policies and procedures but does not seek any monetary damages (Sacramento Bee, 7/24).
The lawsuit states, "Unless systematic and drastic measures are instituted immediately, the costs to these veterans, their families and our nation will be incalculable, including broken families, a new generation of unemployed and homeless veterans, increases in drug abuse and alcoholism and crushing burdens on the health care delivery system" (AP/Houston Chronicle, 7/23).
The lawsuit seeks to represent between 320,000 and 800,000 Iraq veterans who are at risk for PTSD. A federal judge will decide whether the lawsuit merits class-action status, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 7/24).
Paul Sullivan, executive director of VCS, said, "Since the Iraq and Afghanistan wars began, the VA has betrayed our veterans. Instead of hiring more doctors and claims processors, the VA instituted new policies that block veterans' access to prompt mental health care" (Sacramento Bee, 7/24).
VA spokesperson Matt Smith said he was unable to discuss the lawsuit but added that the agency is dedicated to meeting the needs of veterans. Smith said, "Through outreach efforts, the VA ensures returning Global War on Terror service members have access to the widely recognized quality health care they have earned including services such as prosthetics or mental health care. VA has also given priority handling to their monetary disability benefit claims" (CongressDaily, 7/24).
VA Secretary Jim Nicholson last week announced he would resign from his position by Oct. 1. During his tenure, he has denied allegations of insufficient care but acknowledged that there were elements of the agency that could be improved (AP/Houston Chronicle, 7/23).
Army Secretary Pete Geren on Friday toured Fort Riley, Kan., where he discussed problems in the care of wounded soldiers and measures that are being taken to fix the system, the AP/Salt Lake City Deseret Morning News reports.
Geren in March took over as acting Army secretary after Francis Harvey resigned over reports of poor conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Geren last week said, "We have a lot to learn. We had soldiers who slipped through the cracks."
The Army in recent weeks has announced new plans to address medical care, including increased support for soldiers with mental disorders. "We're building a new system, and we want the system to work," Geren said, adding, "The only way it will work is if you are frank and candid" (Milburn, AP/Salt Lake City Deseret Morning News, 7/22).
CNN's "The Situation Room" on Monday included a discussion with CNN senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre about the lawsuit (Blitzer, "The Situation Room," CNN, 7/23). A transcript of the segment is available online.
In addition, PBS' "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" on Monday reported on disability benefits for veterans. The segment includes comments from Ron Smith, an attorney for Disabled American Veterans; an injured veteran; and Brig. Gen. Reuben Jones, who oversees the physical evaluation process for the Army (Bowser, "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," PBS, 7/23). Audio and a transcript of the segment are available online. Video will be available Tuesday afternoon.